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How To Offer a Great Volunteer Experience! (part 1)

If you have some background with volunteer management, you’re likely to recognize the following steps which are how you, as an organization, offer the

If you have some background with volunteer management, you’re likely to recognize the following steps which are how you, as an organization, offer the best possible volunteer experience:

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PLAN. Work with your board and staff to identify volunteer roles and support systems.

RECRUIT. Promote your mission and clearly articulate the volunteer needs.

ORGANIZE and TRAIN. Provide comprehensive orientation and training as appropriate.

SUPERVISE and EVALUATE. Ensure tasks are completed correctly and the volunteer understands when his/her position’s goals are achieved.

RECOGNIZE. Regularly publicize and celebrate the significant contributions of volunteers for the awareness of stakeholders and the greater community.

These steps are known as the Volunteer Management Cycle (VMC). The VMC is the foundation of of current Volunteer Management Theory. There are numerous sub-steps for each major category. Various websites offer explanations or online tutorials to explore each step. The information is good and practical and proves relatively useful to those responsible for the weighty and seemingly endless task of managing volunteers.

Just one problem, really. It’s too much work.

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I may be stating the obvious here, but most NPO’s who rely on volunteers do not have the resources to hire a Volunteer Coordinator. In fact, we usually see Executive Directors who are not only playing the role of Volunteer Coordinator but also Program Director, Event Coordinator and everything else in between. Needless to say, the VMC looks great on paper, but to even begin to imagine it’s implementation feels like wishful thinking…exhausting wishful thinking. And in the few cases where it is implemented in small to medium size organizations, it is doomed to fail for lack of energy, time and systemic organizational support. (As far as I know, the Volunteer Management Cycle originated out of a large, well-funded hospital here in Toronto.)

Oh, and did I mention the other slight defect? The Cycle is facing the wrong direction.

The VMC looks at the volunteer experience from the organization’s perspective. It encourages questions like, ‘Are we ready to receive volunteers? Can we describe the work clearly? Can we invite people to join us from the community? Are able to supervise and evaluate the work and appropriately thank them for doing it?’ These are good, important questions to consider. The problem is that the perspective is all wrong. We need to pull a one-eighty; turn our backs to the the organization (for now), and look through the eyes of the volunteer. Questions like, ‘What do we (the NPO) need, how do we ask for it, train for it, evaluate and recognize it?’ might work for staff (maybe), but volunteers are not simply staff. Not honorary staff, not staff emeritus, not unpaid staff….they are more than staff. Volunteers are both staff AND customer. This is why the task of providing a great volunteer experience often proves to be all too tricky.

So, why “customer”? Customers belong to for-profit businesses, while clients or patients belong to non-profit organizations….right? This assumption usually provides neat and necessary distinctions. (employee:customer, volunteer:client, server:served) For NPOs the distinction is easy. Servers have solutions and resources, the served have problems and needs, therefore volunteers naturally fall into the category of resource(r) and solution provider. The term ‘customer’ is a bit uncomfortable because it blurs the line. In the for-profit world, it’s not such a big deal as the makers of Ford cars will often end up being customers of Ford products. However, for an NPO it is counter-intuitive to consider that a volunteer may in fact be a customer of their services. The identity of a volunteer may end up being (and maybe even ought to be?) both server and served.

If this is the case, then the NPO should aim to benefit both client and volunteer with their services and activities. Conversely, both volunteer and client should be seen as contributors and treated as such.
Volunteers come to your organization because they have needs to be filled. They come because they believe you are offering something that will benefit them. They come for the same fundamental reasons as your clients. This is a simple truth, and one that has the potential to profoundly alter any organization who is willing to implement it as the starting point for managing volunteer programs.
Oh, and did I mention it’s far more realistic than the VMC? Again, not that the VMC isn’t good….it’s just not good enough.
More to come on how to fashion a great volunteer experience in light of the above understandings.

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About the author

At Realized Worth, we help companies connect with their communities. We do this through corporate volunteering and social media.

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